Guest Blog: Krystle Merchant on Teaching Women’s History

Krystle Merchant teaches a high school women’s history class at an all-girls school outside of Washington, D.C. (photo courtesy, Krystle Merchant)

The following guest blog by Krystle Merchant is the final post in a three-part series on teaching for social justice featuring the work of educators in primary, middle, and high school classrooms.

Krystle Merchant is a teacher and proud feminist at an all-girls high school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. 

As a young, black female history teacher at a private school in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., I often feel pressured to speak to colleagues and parents on behalf of many different communities. As a result, I try to educate girls to be willing and able to do the same as adult women, regardless of which communities they represent. This is especially true in my Women in the United States senior history elective, where I draw my students’ attention to their current and future experiences as women, the importance of gender to the meaning of history, and the construction of the historical narrative.

On the first day of class, we start with a simple survey. The first question, “Are you a feminist?,” always gets a qualified answer. Even seniors at an all-girls high school, who are choosing to take a course in women’s history, do not feel comfortable identifying as feminists. The term is so deeply connected to negative stereotypes of women, that even when they give a good working definition of feminism, they do not want to associate themselves with the term.

To chip away at their internalized barrier to feminism, I ask my girls to identify, follow, and respond regularly to a feminist blog such as the fbomb, Feministing, and Feminists for Choice. From there, the course proceeds by reviewing much of the same content covered in their junior year survey course on U.S. History.

However, rather than discussing notable American women or women’s contributions to the usual textbook topics, we talk about periodization, access to power, and production. The latter term “production” refers to the sources available for our study and whether they were produced by women. Women’s societal status at any given time determined the kinds of information they could produce and whether that information became accessible for later study. Continue reading

Guest Blog: Emancipatory Education: Dena Simmons on Teaching for Social Justice in Middle School

Dena Simmons teaches middle school students social justice and activism (photo courtesy, Dena Simmons).

The following guest blog by Dena Simmons is the second in a three-part series on teaching for social justice featuring the work of educators in primary, middle, and high school classrooms.

Dena Simmons is an activist, an educator, and student. Born to a resilient mother who escaped Antigua to come to the U.S., Simmons was raised in the Bronx and hopes to stay there. After graduating with honors from Middlebury College, Simmons returned to the Bronx as a middle school teacher. In 2007, she traveled to Antigua as a health volunteer for the Directorate of Gender Affairs to provide better health services for Dominican sex workers. She received a Fulbright grant to study the collaboration between schools and health agencies to prevent teen pregnancy in the Dominican Republic. She is also a 2004 Harry S. Truman Scholar and 2010 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow. She is currently studying for her Doctorate of Education at Columbia University, Teachers College. Her research is focused on teacher preparedness as it relates to bullying in the middle school setting.

At the beginning of each school year, I become overwhelmed with happiness and excitement at the thought of teaching and preparing the next generation of activists.

As I reflect on some social justice practices I do in the middle school classroom, the first and most important practice that comes to mind is the act of learning who my students, their parents/guardians, and community are.

On the first day of school, I present students with a survey so that they have the opportunity to tell me about themselves, their hobbies, the languages they speak at home, their favorite foods, favorite books, their academic and social strengths and areas of growth, and so on.  I use the information students share with me to incorporate their experiences into my instruction so that it is culturally responsive and student-centered.

I also send students home with an introductory letter and parent survey as a way to communicate to parents that our work in educating their children is a collaborative effort and that I am interested in who they are and what they have to offer.

Too often, we enter our classrooms focusing on our students’ deficits, needs, and problems.  Instead, we should focus on what they do bring to the classroom and build off of it.  In addition to having students fill out a survey, I also do an activity with them called “hands, head, heart, and home” where through making posters, students share with their classmates and me their hands (what they are good at doing), head (what they are knowledgeable about), heart (what they are passionate about), and home (what organizations and places in their community they consider to be important). Continue reading

Guest Blog: Vanessa D’Egidio on Teaching for Social Justice in Primary School Classrooms

Vanessa D’Egidio teaches for social justice in primary school classrooms (photo courtesy: Vanessa D’Egidio).

The following guest blog by Vanessa D’Egidio is the first in a three-part series on teaching for social justice featuring the work of educators in primary, middle, and high school classrooms.

Vanessa D’Egidio is currently a second grade teacher in New York City. As a graduate of both Barnard College’s Childhood Education Program and the Curriculum and Teaching Master’s Program at Teachers College, Vanessa brings to the classroom a passion for teaching for social justice. Vanessa has gained a diverse wealth of experiences studying and working in Hong Kong,  Italy, and New York and is a member of the Teaching Tolerance advisory board.

“Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions.” -James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”

Those who spend time with children know what James Baldwin noted in his 1963 speech to teachers to be true. Young children seem to carry an inherent curiosity and keen eye for observation with them to and from school. They notice the world around them. They ask questions. They notice differences. They notice similarities. They speak what’s on their minds.

Young children have not yet learned the art of self-censorship that comes with age. For some, issues related to diversity can be ignored. For others, this colorblind approach is a privilege they can never have, especially those who are directly impacted by social “–isms” such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. These children do not have the choice to turn a blind eye to bias, stereotyping, and prejudice.

Sometimes, issues related to diversity come up spontaneously in the classroom. A child will make a comment or ask a question. A teacher may overhear a conversation. I have witnessed children make a myriad of comments both inside and outside of school. “Why does she have brown skin?” “You can’t have a family with two mommies. It has to be a mommy and a daddy!” “Pink is a girl’s color!” While it is important to seize these “teachable moments” when they arise, I think it is even more important to design and implement an anti-bias curriculum that integrates culturally relevant teaching and addresses social justice pro-actively.

I believe that an anti-bias curriculum cannot be a superficial add-on to the existing curricula; it must be thoughtfully planned and responsive, as well as pervasive and embedded within all aspects of the teaching-learning process. A huge part of my practice involves building up my students’ critical thinking skills and ability to engage in dialogue around complex social issues. I want them to feel safe in our teaching-learning environment so they can ask questions, make connections, share personal experiences, and talk openly and honestly about who they are and what they observe in the world around them, particularly in regards to the “isms” that continuously impact our communities.

I also encourage my students to be allies—or people who have the courage to stand up and speak out in the face of unfairness—whether it is in the form of a gender-related bullying situation at recess or a larger issue they have observed.

Below are some classroom practices I use to integrate social justice and anti-bias principles into my second grade curriculum. These strategies are not meant to be prescriptive or implemented as “easy” solutions. Anti-bias work in the classroom is inherently complex, messy, and challenging. Keeping this reality in mind though, it can be done, and more importantly, it can be adapted successfully for the primary classroom. Continue reading